The continuation bet or "c-bet" in no-limit hold'em is a frequently chosen action made by players who have taken the preflop initiative by raising.
It's called a "continuation bet" because it continues the aggression earlier signaled by the preflop raise. By contrast, a player who did not raise before the flop but only called who then bets first on the flop is not making a continuation bet, but rather is making what is generically described as a "leading bet" or sometimes a "donk bet."
The need to be aggressive in no-limit hold'em is so frequently recommended, some players take that advice to mean that once they start betting or raising in a hand they need to continue doing so. If they raise before the flop, they feel it almost required to continuation bet after the flop in order to maintain that aggressive stance.
The fact is, most successful — and thoughtful — poker players know that "c-betting" isn't automatic postflop after having raised preflop. Here are five examples of situations presenting reasons not to go ahead with that postflop continuation bet.
1. You Missed the Flop
While you don't want to be predictable and only bet when you have something and check when you don't, missing the flop presents a reasonable cause not to fire a continuation bet. This is particularly true when the flop is coordinated and/or appears likely to have hit your opponent's range of hands.
Example: You raise from middle position with and only the button calls. The flop comes . Checking here rather than c-betting is acceptable, as would be folding to a bet should your opponent make one. Think about how you would feel if you bet such a flop with your hand and were called. How would you proceed on the turn, even if an ace or king were to fall? Even with position, checking back with ace-king on such a flop isn't necessarily a bad play, either.
2. You Are Out of Position
More often than not your opening raises will likely win you postflop position, particularly if you are making the majority of them from middle-to-late position (as you should). But you'll still occasionally be caught out of position postflop, which can present another reason to forgo the c-bet, especially when up against tricky, skilled opponents.
Example: You raise from the cutoff with , the button calls, and the flop comes . Again, if you c-bet and are called, you are in a kind of "no man's land" going forward. Check-calling or check-folding is preferable here. Even on more favorable flops, check-calling can be prudent when out of position in order to prevent pots from becoming uncomfortably large.
3. You Face Multiple Opponents
Regardless of position, if your preflop opening raise earns multiple callers, that's an obvious spot in which continuation betting should seem anything but automatic. Against two, three, or more opponents, a favorable flop is all but required to c-bet, and even then it might not be feasible to take on a big field. That said, there are arguments in favor of c-betting versus multiple opponents in certain games and situations — see "Continuation Betting in Multi-Way Pots: Plowing Down the Field" by Nate Meyvis for a discussion.
Example: You raise from the hijack seat with and get calls from the cutoff, the button, and both blinds. The five of you see a flop come , and both blinds check. Against one opponent, a continuation bet would be in order most of the time — flops containing high cards, generally are good to c-bet, as they tend to hit your perceived raising range and miss the ranges of most preflop callers. But with so many opponents and only a gutshot draw for which to hope, betting can expose you to problems if anyone plays back.
4. Your Lone Opponent Is Aggressive
Against certain aggressive opponents, giving up the initiative after the flop and letting them bet can be a profitable line to take when holding medium-to-strong hands. When out of position you can check rather than c-bet, giving them a chance to bet and allowing you to call and slow play or check-raise and start the pot building right there. Against particularly loose, inattentive opponents, whether you continuation bet or not isn't necessarily that significant to them, as your having the initiative doesn't lessen their readiness to mix it up.
Example: You raise from under the gun with and get called by a loose-aggressive opponent on the button. The flop comes and you check, making it more inviting to him to bet and get attached to his hand when you are likely ahead.
5. You Wish to Balance Your Play
Finally, as with everything in poker, you should strive not to perform any action so consistently that you can be easily exploited by attentive opponents. Don't continuation bet every time you've raised preflop, but also don't choose only to c-bet in certain, easy-to-read situations. Sometimes it will be preferable to check the flop even with a decent hand, if only to mix up your play and avoid being predictable.
Example: You raise from the button with and the big blind calls. The flop comes and when your opponent checks you check back. The falls on the turn, and when checked to you bet — a "delayed continuation bet," as it is sometimes called — and get a call from a wide range of hands you currently beat (e.g., , , , diamond draws). You risk being drawn out on, but you also have given yourself a better chance of winning a more substantial pot than you would have won with a flop c-bet.
One Last Thought
Building on that last point, your image — both generally speaking and in the eyes of the particular opponent(s) in a given hand — has a lot to do with how a continuation bet is going to be perceived. Be aware of how often you are c-betting and how it likely looks to those with whom your playing. Then work to disrupt those patterns going forward and be less predictable and/or interpretable with your continuation bets.